A space to just ‘be’: Northampton seeks place to house ‘Community Resilience Hub’ for those in need

  • Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz is shown Monday at City Hall. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz. Photographed on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, at City Hall. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 12/22/2020 7:18:19 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Several years after the Mayor’s Panhandling Work Group was formed, a key recommendation from its 248-page report is closer to becoming a reality.

One of the “top issues” that came out of the Panhandling Work Group, Mayor David Narkewicz said, “was this idea of a need for a place that people could go to get a variety of services and shelter and warmth and showers.

“And we have that to a lesser degree with the resource center, which is colocated at the shelter on Center Street, ” he added, referring to ServiceNet’s resource center downtown, “but it’s very small and cramped and has limited hours.”

The city has started planning and is now searching for a space to house a “Community Resilience Hub,” which would “support Northampton residents who face chronic and acute stress due to natural and human-caused disasters, climate change, and social and economic challenges,” according to the city’s webpage on the hub.

“That’s an idea that we are moving very rapidly forward with. It’s one of my top priorities for 2021,” Narkewicz said.

The center could be used in the future if there are climate change-induced emergencies, Narkewicz said. “The idea is that it could serve dual roles,” he said. “In case we have severe climate events, it could provide shelter there.”

The city has met with nonprofits including Community Action Pioneer Valley and Eliot Homeless Services about the idea. “We’re looking at different structures,” Narkewicz said, “whether we purchase the building and lease it to a nonprofit or obtain grants so that a nonprofit could purchase it.” A social service agency with professional expertise, not the city, would run the center, Narkewicz said.

The city’s webpage about the hub notes that Community Action is the lead agency managing the hub. “We know that the city is early in its process identifying how this could work, but we’re on board to be sort of the manager of whatever the site looks like,” said Community Action Pioneer Valley Executive Director Clare Higgins, a former mayor of Northampton. “The reason we’re willing to do that [is] as an anti-poverty agency,” she said, “we see housing as fundamental in terms of an issue of poverty.”

There’s a lot left to negotiate in terms of Community Action’s role, Higgins said. But “if the city identifies a place or a model they want to move forward with based on the work they’ve done, we’re ready to help,” she said, emphasizing that homelessness is also a regional and national issue.

Keleigh Pereira is the director of The Three County Continuum of Care, which addresses homelessness and is a program of Community Action. She has been part of discussions with the city about the project and said the hub can be a way to bring multiple services to one space for people. Sometimes, someone in need “might have to go to six different places in one day to get access to the things they need and the services that they need to be provided,” she said. The space would be open to everyone. “It’s really meant to be a space for all,” she said.

The city worked with an architect to help determine the needs for a space, and they produced a report this summer, which can be found at northamptonma.gov/2166/Community-Resilience-Hub.

The state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs gave the city $45,000 in grant funding to plan the project, and $200,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funding is reserved for the project for fiscal year 2021, according to Narkewicz. The hub has also received more than $45,000 in donations from the public, and the city is pursuing other grants and funding sources, according to Narkewicz.

Though the pandemic at first derailed the project, “if anything, it further exposed the need for this center,” Narkewicz said. “Now we have a lot of places closed that would normally be places people go to,” such as libraries and churches, he said.

Higgins echoed Narkewicz. “I just think the pandemic has exposed every fault line that we have — including homelessness.”

A day center is not an idea unique to Northampton. “It’s a model that’s used in other places. We’re trying to replicate that,” with some additions that are specific to the city, Narkewicz said.

The idea of a community day center was a recommendation from the Panhandling Work Group, which formed in 2017 to research panhandling and produced a 248-page report in October 2019. The effort spurred some controversy when two city councilors objected to, among other issues, the makeup of the group — no people who panhandle or who were experiencing homelessness were members of the work group.

Interviews were conducted with people who panhandle, and Narkewicz held a follow-up meeting with people experiencing homelessness to get their feedback on recommendations made in a draft of the report.

“People said the Resource Center is too small, hours available for showers and laundry are too limited … and you aren’t allowed to stay there just to be warm and get off the street,” the report says, detailing feedback from people experiencing homelessness. “People explained the need for a daytime warming center option in addition to Forbes Library, where they aren’t told to ‘move along.’ They would like a space to just ‘be,’ where they aren’t bothering anyone and no one is bothering them.”

ServiceNet’s downtown Northampton resource center is open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, according to Amy Timmins, vice president of community relations at ServiceNet. Guests at the emergency shelter at First Churches of Northampton are able to use the center on the other five days of the week, Timmins said in an email.

The Rev. Todd Weir, co-pastor at First Churches, was a member of the Panhandling Work Group. He agreed that the center was a key solution to address homelessness that came out of the group. “Resilience hub I think was the best thing to help people who are currently homeless. I think the second piece is there needs to be more units available — obviously, we need more housing,” said Weir, who is also chairman of the city’s Housing Partnership.

When it rains, Weir sometimes sees people with nowhere else to go take shelter from the weather under the church’s access ramp, he said. “Where do you go to get out of the rain where you might feel safe or where people won’t say, ‘What are you doing here? Get out of here.’”

He’s hoping the hub would have lockers. Pereira would like to see that, too. “I have seen situations where people are unwilling to go into shelter because they have nowhere to put their belongings, so they are stuck outside with their belongings,” she said.

Storage downtown “was the most requested item during the session,” according to the Panhandling Work Group’s report. “It is emotionally and physically draining for people to lug their belongings around all day. It precludes their ability to accept any additional clothing or food because they are simply unable to cart more around.”




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